Fairbotton Bobs
Source: Wikimedia Commons

Fairbottom Bobs, an 18th-century Newcomen-type beam engine, was used to pump water from a coal pit near Ashton-under-Lyne on the Lancashire CoalfieldThe Lancashire and Cheshire Coalfield in North West England was one of the most important British coalfields. Its coal seams were formed from the vegetation of tropical swampy forests in the Carboniferous period more than 300 million years ago.. It is probably the world’s second-oldest surviving steam engine.[a]The Newcomen Memorial Engine of 1725 at Dartmouth is generally considered to be the oldest survivor. It was installed at the Cannel Pit at Fairbottom Colliery[b]the colliery consisted of several single shaft pits near Ashton-under-Lyne in either 1760[1] or 1764,[2] and became known locally as Fairbottom Bobs.[3]

It is not certain when the engine was built.[4] A “Fire Engine” was advertised for sale from Norbury Coal Works about nine miles (14 km) to the west in the The Manchester Mercury on 9 October 1764.  Its cylinder dimensions matched the Fairbottom engine.[3][c]As cylinder dimensions were not standardised at the time, they are a crucial identification factor for many early engines.[4]

The engine’s design and construction have been described as “primitive”.[1] It had a power rating of 11 horsepower. Its cylinder has a 28-inch (710 mm) bore and 8-foot (2.4 m) stroke, driving a water pump with an 8-inch (200 mm) bore that could raise water from a depth of 240 feet (73 m) at a rate of 14 strokes per minute.[3] The timber beam consisted of single wooden king post with wrought iron straps and wooden arch heads at each end. Iron chains linked the beam to the piston rods. An auxiliary arch head drove the engine’s air pump.[1] The beam was supported on a pillar of dressed stone resembling a thick wall or narrow pyramid, a feature found on other engines of this age but rare later when they were supported on the wall of an engine house.[1] Although foundations and stone floors survive on its former site, there is no evidence of an engine house or roof to protect it from the weather.[2]

As was common for mine drainage, pumping at one pit could drain water from a number of nearby pits. The water produced was drained into the Fairbottom Branch Canal at Fennyfield Bridge,[d]the Fairbottom Branch joined the Hollingwood Branch of the Ashton Canal just south of the engine.[5] In 1801 the canal company was asked to contribute to the costs of the engine’s refurbishment, work that may have been carried out by Bateman and Sherratt engine builders of Manchester. The pit appears to have been worked out in the 1820s, although others nearby were working as the Fairbottom Pits. Draining old mine workings and supplying water to the canal kept the engine working after the Cannel Colliery closed until the engine was abandoned in 1826[5] or 1827.[3]


Photographs of the site taken in 1886 showed the engine in a reasonable state of preservation. When Henry Ford was collecting exhibits for his museum in Dearborn, Michigan, USA in 1927, a major theme was “Americana” but he also sought older industrial archaeological exhibits from Europe. Ford’s agent, Herbert F. Morton, found the engine although it had been derelict for a hundred years and was in poor condition. Its owner Lord Stamford donated the engine to be preserved. The engine and its masonry were dismantled and re-assembled in the Henry Ford Museum. Its wooden beam was too rotten to be preserved and a replacement was made.[3] Its wagon boiler was also acquired[2] but the engine is displayed with a haystack boiler from another engine, similar to one believed to have been used originally.[3]

Some features on the Fairbottom site remain in situ including the chimney base. Archaeological digs took place in 1982, 1990 and 2000 to investigate the remains.[2]